Georgia Democrats discuss Biden’s infrastructure plan

ATLANTA – President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would provide an overdue fix to deteriorating highways while ramping up investment in modern transit including high-speed rail, three members of Georgia’s congressional delegation said Wednesday.

Freshman Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Suwanee and Nikema Williams of Atlanta and veteran Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Stone Mountain addressed an online roundtable of state and regional transportation agency heads and metro-Atlanta local elected officials. All three are members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The bill, which Biden unveiled last week, calls for repairing and upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems, but would also include other infrastructure needs like broadband, water and wastewater projects.

It would move well past rebuilding the interstate highway system begun by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the transportation committee’s chairman, who addressed the group at the start of the discussion.

“We’re not doing Eisenhower 8.0,” he said. “We’re moving into the 21st century with our infrastructure.”

DeFazio said the legislation would create lots of good paying union jobs, more than enough to make up for the jobs lost when Biden canceled the controversial Keystone Pipeline.

In fact, DeFazio cited a report from Moody’s Investors Service that predicted a return of $1.50 for every $1 the federal government spends on infrastructure improvements.

The bill faces an uphill battle in Congress. While progressive Democrats are urging an even bigger infrastructure package, Republicans are digging in to oppose the legislation because it would be paid for with higher taxes on corporations.

Johnson said the U.S. can’t afford not to spend the money.

“We should not be 13th in the world investing in our infrastructure,” he said. “We have to have a government willing to make the initial investments.”

Williams said her vision for transportation is centered around providing equity by revitalizing transit stations in low-income communities to attract economic development.

MARTA is doing just that with a $50 million upgrade of the Bankhead rail station in conjunction with a planned 90-acre Microsoft campus. The fiscal 2022 state budget the General Assembly adopted last week put $6 million toward the project.

“We’re really aligned with the initiative the [House] committee and the president are putting together,” said Jeff Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO.

Bourdeaux said chronic traffic congestion in metro Atlanta is hurting economic development in the region. More transit options would go a long way toward solving the problem, she said.

“We do have to widen roads,” Bourdeaux said. “[But] all of us are interested in transit and new ways to do things.”

Georgia to ease COVID-19 distancing, gathering restrictions amid vaccine push

Gov. Brian Kemp announced four mass COVID-19 vaccination sites are set to open in Georgia on Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp is set to roll back longstanding COVID-19 distancing restrictions in Georgia amid a mix of relief and concern from local businesses and public-health experts.

Starting Thursday, Georgia’s months-long ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one place will be lifted per orders from the governor, who has steadily moved to ease safety measures imposed since the virus swept the state in March last year.

Restaurants and bars will be allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement. Movie-goers can sit 3 feet from each other in indoor theaters. A shelter-in-place order for nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities also will be lifted.

Additionally, police officers will be barred from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules. A partial ban on mask mandates in Georgia cities and counties will also remain in effect.

Kemp’s decision comes as more and more Georgians receive their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was made available to everyone age 16 and older starting late last month.

Nearly 4.3 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Tuesday, marking more than 2.8 million people who have received at least one of the needed two doses for most vaccines. More than 1.5 million Georgians are now fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Public Health data.

“We continue to make steady progress in our vaccine administration here in Georgia,” Kemp said this week. “The life-saving COVID-19 vaccine is our key back to normal, and with all Georgians ages 16 and over now eligible to receive the shot, we are well on our way as we head into spring and summer.”

The rollback set for Thursday drew praise from local business leaders including restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year. Roughly 20% of Georgia’s restaurants remain closed after more than half shut down temporarily in the pandemic’s early days, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Bremer noted the 6-foot distancing rule has limited restaurants to about 60% of capacity, complicating dine-in services as many restaurants turned to curbside and delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants will still have leeway to decide whether to stick with the stricter safety measures once the rollback kicks in, she said.

“Slowly but surely, we have been able to expand to a more reasonable level,” Bremer said. “I’m sure that there will be many that still require the face coverings for people to come into their businesses. It’s their prerogative as a business to do that.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also backed Kemp’s rollback decision, noting local businesses “should continue to follow safety protocols and prioritize the health of customers and employees,” said Chris Clark, the chamber’s president and CEO.

However, some public-health experts have urged Kemp to pump the brakes on loosening COVID-19 restrictions until more Georgians become fully vaccinated in the next month or so.

“Too soon, way too soon,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset last year. He pushed for waiting until at least the end of this month to start relaxing restrictions.

His stance was echoed by Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. Georgia should hold off on fully reopening until about three-fourths of all residents have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he said.

In the meantime, restaurants can take steps like install plexiglass screens between customers and require masks to reduce risks of transmission, particularly as more infectious mutations of the virus take root in Georgia, Fung said.

“I would highly recommend Georgians to put on face masks if they speak, especially in public or when they’re meeting with friends,” Fung said. “I understand why they want that to be relaxed … but people should remain vigilant. … The pathway forward is to get as many people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at myvaccinegeorgia.com even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

As more Georgians are vaccinated, Kemp said he will not seek to require so-called “vaccine passports” for people to show proof they’ve been vaccinated in order to travel, work or frequent businesses.

“While the development of multiple safe, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a scientific miracle, the decision to receive the vaccine should be left up to each individual,” Kemp said.

More than 857,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, with more than 209,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,761 Georgians.

Georgia candidates line up early for key 2022 elections

Last year’s heated election cycle in Georgia has already drawn early candidates — including primary challengers — for 2022 races in which Republicans are looking to fend off strong Democratic campaigns for key statewide seats. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The first wave of candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for key Georgia elective offices including lieutenant governor and secretary of state amid bitter partisan battles over the state’s new election law.

With roughly 19 months until the November 2022 general election, several Democratic contenders are vying for top seats long held by Republicans, while the state’s incumbent GOP elections chief has already drawn a tough primary challenge after last year’s charged election cycle.

In recent weeks, Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna announced his candidacy against Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who also could draw a hardline GOP primary opponent over his appeal to the state’s moderate Republicans following last year’s election losses.

That’s the case for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican seeking reelection against fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Greensboro as well as former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

A four-term congressman, Hice has lobbed many of same attacks over the party’s 2020 election losses that former President Donald Trump used to pummel Raffensperger, who repeatedly rejected Trump’s claims of voter fraud. Trump has already endorsed Hice.

“Every Georgian, in fact every American, has the right to be outraged by the actions and, simultaneously, the inaction of our secretary of state,” Hice said in his March 22 announcement.

“At the end of the day, I think people will figure out that we did follow the law,” Raffensperger said in a March 30 interview. “We’ll make sure we have fair and honest elections in Georgia.”

Democrat Manswell Peterson, a U.S. Navy veteran and former police officer from Albany, also announced last week he is running for secretary of state against Raffensperger.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp has yet to draw an opponent from his own party after absorbing blows from Trump, who lost to current President Joe Biden by a slim margin in the first of what is expected to be many tight statewide elections over the next decade.

But Republicans are already gearing up to mark 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as GOP public-enemy No. 1 after she helped galvanize Georgia Democrats to historic wins in last year’s presidential and U.S. Senate races.

Abrams is widely expected to run against Kemp again but has not officially declared her candidacy. If she does, Abrams will be on the Democratic ticket with recently elected U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is staring down another brutal campaign in 2022 after winning the final two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.

Georgia’s controversial election bill that Kemp signed into law last month looks to figure prominently in the upcoming races, with Democrats and Republicans sparring over whether the changes worsen or improve voter access, the role of Trump’s fraud claims and local business boycotts.

“The attack on our state is the direct result of repeated lies from Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams about a bill that expands access to the ballot box and ensures the integrity of our elections,” Kemp said last week.

“If the Georgia GOP cared about Georgia’s economy and the working Georgians that keep our state going, they wouldn’t have tried to steal their votes,” said Democratic Party of Georgia spokeswoman Maggie Chambers in response.

Also up for reelection next year is Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican and Trump ally. He has so far drawn a challenge from Democrat Charlie Bailey, an Atlanta attorney and former prosecutor who lost to Carr in 2018.

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta attorney, has been floated as a possible candidate to run against Carr. She has not said whether she’ll launch a 2022 campaign but told lawmakers during debate on a prosecutor-oversight bill she opposed that it “just may mean we may need a new [attorney general].”

Additionally, Democratic state Rep. William Boddie of East Point announced this week he’ll run against Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, whose office has faced backlash over slow turnaround times for processing unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environmentalists win trust fund protection in otherwise disappointing legislative session

ATLANTA – When the dust settled from this year’s General Assembly session, environmental advocates were looking at some success but mostly disappointments.

Lawmakers finally voted to protect state trust funds for environmental cleanup activities after years of failed efforts.

But two bills that passed the General Assembly would prohibit local governments from regulating poultry plant processing wastes or adopting building codes based on the source of energy to be used.

The trust fund legislation follows a constitutional amendment Georgia voters ratified overwhelmingly last November requiring all revenues the state’s dedicated trust funds collect to remain inside those programs rather than be diverted into the general fund budget.

The late Georgia Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died in November 2019, championed the constitutional amendment for years to prevent Georgia governors and legislative leaders from raiding the state’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds during economic downturns when money is tight.

While Powell had those two environmental trust funds in mind, the final version of House Bill 511 added other trust funds to the protected list, including the

  • State Children’s Trust Fund, which goes to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
  • Wildlife Endowment Trust Fund, a tax on hunting and fishing licenses that supports state wildlife programs.
  • Georgia Trauma Care Network, which funds trauma care services through a fine on “super speeders.”
  • Transportation Trust Fund, which supports road projects through the state’s motor fuels tax.
  • Georgia Agricultural Trust Fund, which goes toward marketing the state’s farm products and state-run farmers’ markets.
  • Fireworks Trust Fund, a sales tax on fireworks that goes toward trauma care and firefighter training.
  • Georgia Transit Trust Fund, a per-ride tax on ride-sharing services that helps fund public transit improvements.

“When we in this General Assembly create and pass a dedicated fee to go to a certain purpose … it should go to the purpose it was intended for,” Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, the bill’s chief sponsor, said during a committee hearing on the measure.

The constitutional amendment ratified last fall includes a 10-year sunset date to give lawmakers a chance to make sure the services each trust fund pays for are still needed.

It allows governors and legislatures to suspend the dedication of trust fund revenues during economic emergencies to free up those funds for general spending needs.

Also, the total amount dedicated to the trust funds during a given fiscal year may not exceed 1% of the state’s budget from the previous fiscal year.

While celebrating the win on trust funds, environmental groups and minority Democrats criticized two “preemption” bills the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed during the last two days of this year’s legislative session.

One of the measures prohibits local governments from regulating poultry processing plant wastes farmers spread on their fields as fertilizer.

The legislation was spurred by complaints from residents in several Northeast Georgia counties of foul odors emanating from farm fields.

Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta, said waste being spread on the fields that is supposed to be limited to liquid but sometimes contains byproducts, including chicken carcasses.

“The smell is awful,” she said. “It’s been a problem people have really complained about.”

But Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, the bill’s chief sponsor, said a late change the Georgia House of Representatives added to the measure requiring farmers to submit a nutrient management plan should give the state the tools to go after violators.

“It ensures those that are bad actors get their act together and do it right,” he said.

The other preemption bill stems from actions a handful of cities in other states have taken requiring builders to use only renewable sources of energy to power new commercial and residential buildings.

Republicans pitched the legislation as giving home- and business owners freedom to choose how they want to power their properties without government interference.

“Many homes in my district are warmed by petroleum gas,” Rep. Beth Camp, R-Concord, said during a committee debate on the bill. “If a municipality makes a decision to terminate a form of energy, they’re telling people what they can and can’t do in their homes.”

But opponents said the bill essentially was a solution looking for a problem. While Georgia cities including Atlanta, Athens and Savannah, have set goals for reducing reliance on fossil fuels, none have banned gas.

“Nobody’s going to prohibit a gas hookup,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “The bill was just a showboat.”

Environmental advocates also were disappointed with the lack of progress on addressing the 29 ash ponds Georgia Power is working to close at 11 of the utility’s coal-burning power plants.

For the second year in a row, Republican legislative leaders wouldn’t give a hearing to Democrats’ bills requiring the installation of liners for the 10 ponds being closed in place to prevent groundwater contamination.

The only legislation that did get a hearing, a proposal to tighten monitoring requirements for coal ash, passed the House but wasn’t taken up in the Senate.

“Toxic coal ash is sitting in groundwater around the state, and yet the Georgia legislature failed to pass legislation addressing this problem,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Atlanta-based Environment Georgia.

But Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, chief sponsor of the monitoring bill, said the solution environmentalists are seeking for coal ash is problematic.

“Liners are good if they never, ever have a default or deterioration,” he said. “But one small pinhole or a crack and you lose what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Baseball’s All-Star Game pulling out of Georgia in protest of new voting law

Major League Baseball is pulling the 2021 All-Star Game out of Truist Park in Cobb County.

ATLANTA – Major League Baseball announced Friday it is pulling this summer’s All-Star Game from Georgia in response to the General Assembly’s passage of an election bill that has been heavily criticized as voter suppression.

“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred Jr. wrote in a prepared statement.

“In 2020 … we proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”

Baseball’s decision to relocate the All-Star Game from Truist Park in Cobb County follows corporate criticism of the law by Atlanta-based companies, primarily Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the voting bill along party lines on the afternoon of March 25, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law later that day.

The sweeping measure overhauls the absentee voting process and early voting in Georgia. It replaces the current signature- match method for verifying absentee ballots with a requirement that absentee voters provide a driver’s license or one of several other forms of identification.

The law expands opportunities for early voting on weekends, a provision Kemp and other Republicans have pointed to in arguing the legislation is not aimed at restricting voting access.

The provision that has drawn the strongest criticism prohibits people who aren’t poll workers from handing out food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places. Republicans have said the provision is intended to prevent illegal electioneering by candidates or campaign workers within 150 feet of the polls.

Democrats around the country – notably President Joe Biden – had called on Major League Baseball to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta since passage of the election law.

But in Georgia, Democrats have responded by opposing the move because of the economic consequences of losing the game.

“Disappointed MLB will move the All-Star Game, but proud of their stance on voting rights,” 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams wrote on Twitter. “Georgia GOP traded economic opportunity for suppression.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms expressed similar sentiments and warned further fallout from the voting law could follow.

“Unfortunately, the removal of the MLB All-Star Game from Georgia is likely the first of many dominoes to fall, until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed,” Bottoms wrote.

Georgia Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, whose state House district includes Truist Park, said she was disappointed by the move.

“The American Rescue Plan exists because of the very Georgia voters who will be most impacted by the economic brunt of the decision to pull the MLB All-Star Game,” she said. “At the same time, I absolutely understand the disgust and frustration with our leadership in Georgia that ultimately led to this decision.”

Kemp released a statement after Friday’s announcement accusing Major League Baseball of caving in to “fear, political opportunism and liberal lies.

“Georgians – and all Americans – should fully understand what the MLB’s knee-jerk decision means: Cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included. If the left doesn’t agree with you, facts and truth do not matter.”

Both Kemp and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston attributed baseball’s decision to lies from Abrams about the new law.

“This decision is not only economically harmful,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “It also robs Georgians of a special celebration of our national pastime free of politics.”

In a news release, the Atlanta Braves wrote that businesses, stadium employees and baseballs fans will all be hurt by the decision.

“The Braves organization will continue to stress the importance of equal voting opportunities, and we had hoped our city could use this event as a platform to enhance the discussion,” the release stated. “Our city has always been known as a uniter in divided times, and we will miss the opportunity to address issues that are important to our community.”

The new voting law has drawn the largest national outcry against Georgia since the General Assembly passed religious freedom legislation in 2016 that critics slammed as discriminatory. It drew boycott threats from local and national businesses, including the film industry, and then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it.

Manfred said Major League Baseball still plans to celebrate the memory of Braves Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron, who died in January, as part of the All-Star Game festivities.

A decision has not been made on a new host city for the game.

Staff writer Beau Evans contributed to this report.

Elections, police, COVID-19 highlight lawmakers’ work in Georgia session

Discarded bills litter the Georgia Senate floor after state lawmakers adjourned the 2021 legislative session “sine die” just after midnight on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Elections, pandemic recovery and the echoes of last summer’s protests against police in Georgia dominated a 2021 legislative session marked by bitter divisions between Georgia’s political parties.

The session, which wrapped up Wednesday and will return next January, was the General Assembly’s first since the 2020 election cycle upended statewide politics as Democrats notched historic wins and Republicans moved to rewrite dozens of voting laws.

Both sides put off disagreements to largely repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that had been on the books since the Civil War and helped fuel protests over police brutality and racial injustice that swept the country for months starting last May.

While largely peaceful, those protests boiled over at times in Atlanta with damage done to police cars, businesses and state public-safety offices, ultimately prompting Republican lawmakers to pass a law that places tight limits on how much Georgia cities and counties can cut their local police budgets.

Budgeting was also top of mind for lawmakers this year after they slashed more than $2 billion last year from Georgia schools, troopers, prisons, mental-health and other social services due to the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Piles of proposals hit a wall as lawmakers closed shop Wednesday, leaving many high-profile measures stalled. The casualty list included legislation to legalize online sports betting in Georgia and allow in-person visits between family members and loved ones at hospitals and nursing homes during emergency times like the pandemic.

Those bills that failed to reach Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk this year will have another chance to do so in 2022 for the second half of the two-year term.

Voting-rights advocates protest inside the state Capitol against Republican-led elections bills in the General Assembly on March 8, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Jim Crow or better elections?

Battle lines formed after Democrats claimed victory in the 2020 presidential election and the U.S. Senate runoffs, handing the party key statewide wins for the first time in decades and cementing the idea that years of hard campaigning and demographic changes have shifted voting patterns in their favor.

Republican leaders quickly counter-attacked by holding General Assembly hearings to air former President Donald Trump’s unfounded voter-fraud claims, which laid the groundwork for proposing broad changes to Georgia’s election system in the session.

Ultimately, lawmakers passed a measure along party lines March 25 that adds identification requirements for mail-in voting, confines absentee-ballot drop boxes inside local election offices and polling places and bans non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks to people in line to vote within 150 feet of polling places during elections.

Those changes, along with new rules allowing state election officials to take over poor-performing county election boards, sparked outrage from Democrats and voting-rights advocates who declared voter access for Black and low-income Georgians will be set back worse than at any time since the Jim Crow era.

“After witnessing the GOP gutting of voting rights and inaction on issues like expanding access to health care, Georgia voters are engaged, empowered and know exactly who’s fighting against them,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the state Democratic Party. “Georgia Republicans are in for a rude awakening in 2022.”

Republican leaders – from Gov. Brian Kemp to party leaders in both General Assembly chambers to the state’s election chief, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – have blasted Democrats’ push to frame the election changes as racist acts of voter suppression.

They argue the law changes aim to bolster confidence in Georgia elections and expand voter access, noting the now-enacted bill scraps the state’s controversial signature-verification process for absentee ballots in favor of a voter ID requirement and gives counties the ability to open polls for more hours on weekends during the early-voting period.

“This is not ‘Jim Crow,’” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton. “Nobody is getting lynched for going to vote. Matter of fact, we don’t want 60% to vote – we want 100%. … Stop with the rhetoric.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and state lawmakers detailed proposed changes to Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law on Feb. 16, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Ups and downs for criminal justice

Beyond election issues, Republican and Democratic leaders also sparred over legislation focused on guns, policing and criminal justice – many of which fell by the wayside after rounds of intense debate.

Efforts to loosen rules on interstate gun-carry permits, prosecute violent protesters and create a driver education program on how to interact with police during traffic stops all fell short of final passage amid stern opposition from Democratic leaders.

But Republican lawmakers did push through a measure that blocks most city and county governments from slashing their police budgets by more than 5% over a 5-year span, which opponents called an attempt by state authorities to strip control from local officials over how to police their communities.

Supporters argued the budget limits would help stave off any future moves by local officials to cripple their police forces, pointing out Atlanta and Athens officials nearly joined several cities outside Georgia in shrinking their police budgets after the summer’s heated protests.

Those protests prompted Democratic lawmakers to file dozens of bills on criminal-justice issues this session including more training for officers in de-escalation techniques, bans on using no-knock warrants and choke holds during arrests, a citizen-led review board for officer-involved shootings and legislation outlawing private prisons.

The only proposal to gain bipartisan support and clear the legislature was an overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law, which was scaled back so that only business owners can briefly detain people who commit crimes on their premises, as well as off-duty or out-of-jurisdiction police officers.

The repeal measure came after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in February 2020 while jogging near Brunswick in an encounter with two white men who suspected him of vandalizing a nearby house under construction. The pair claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

Lobbyists packed the hallways of the state Capitol in Atlanta on the last day of the legislative session on March 31, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

COVID-19 and the pocketbook

Meanwhile, throughout the bouts of fighting and the stretches of collaboration, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over the 2021 session as lawmakers faced twice-weekly infection tests and sought to patch up the state’s $27 billion budget.

Taking cues from the governor, budget drafters in the state Senate and House of Representatives avoided the spending cuts imposed last year that sliced $2.2 billion from state agencies, particularly public schools that receive a huge chunk of annual tax revenues.

Lawmakers hailed Georgia’s economic rebound since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago as fuel to restore budget funding for schools with a mix of state dollars and federal emergency aid – though Democratic lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to raise new revenues by ditching some lucrative tax breaks and raising the levy on cigarette sales. Instead, lawmakers approved even more tax exemptions.

Democrats’ calls to fully expand Medicaid benefits for low-income Georgians were also blocked by Republicans long opposed to broadening the costly program’s scope, despite a steep jump in eligible recipients amid the pandemic. Lawmakers did pass a bill to automatically enroll some 60,000 Georgia children in Medicaid who already receive food stamps.

Lawmakers also scuttled another attempt to legalize some forms of gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery by shooting down a bill to permit regulated sports betting in the state, pitched as way to raise more funding for the HOPE Scholarship program and need-based scholarships.

Also on the chopping block was a measure that would have given Georgia hospital patients and elderly-care residents isolated by the pandemic a limited window to meet in person with a legal representative or caregiver, who could be a family member. It was gutted before finally stalling on Wednesday.

The General Assembly next turns its attention to redrawing the boundaries of Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts, marking a Republican-led process that is certain to drum up the same fiery backlash seen from Democrats during the fight over election changes.

Hearings on redistricting are set to take place at the state Capitol in Atlanta sometime this fall or winter.

The state Capitol building in Atlanta stands quiet after lawmakers adjourned the legislative session shortly after midnight on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)